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The leader of Miami’s Roman Catholics says the consecration of a greatly expanded main church building at St. Agnes on Key Biscayne will inspire the congregation to “catch the fire” for God.

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Archbishop Thomas Wenski, who said he’s been riding his motorcycle out to Key Biscayne to check the construction process, will lead services Friday afternoon as the culmination of a multi-year fundraising and building effort. 

The Independent chatted with Wenski earlier this week about the project, what it means for the island’s believers, and general trends of worship. The following is an edited version of the conversation. 

Tony Winton

Well, thank you again, I guess we’re talking about St. Agnes here and Key Biscayne and just wanted to get your thoughts on this big transformation.

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Thomas Wenski  

It is a beautiful statement, I think, for the island.

And I’ve been out there several times at the construction site. I like to go by on Saturdays, when I have some time on my motorcycle. I go out to the key and then I check out the   status of the construction. 

And of course, I was there when they dedicated the gymnasium that was part of that whole construction project. So this is a big rebuild, if you will, of the whole parish. And as I understand it, it evolved partly from the discussion on how to better provide security for the school. 

And because of the location of the church. … And how the school was configured, it was a challenging thing. 

Somebody came up with the idea. Well, the best way to fix it is to start over.

St. Agnes Roman Catholic Church in Key Biscayne, Fla. May 26. 2023. New construction on the campus has triggered discussion about the existing zoning code (KBI photo/Theo Miller)

Tony Winton  

Yes. But talk about mission creep, right? You are in the mission field (laughs) 

Thomas Wenski

Fortunately, they have the resources to do so. …. and so, you know, a lot of imagination, a lot of creativity went into it. And you know, you have a beautiful church there now.

I heard that somebody, maybe it was in your publication, there was complaining that St. Agnes is one of the three things you can see from outer space.

Tony Winton  

Oh, yeah, there was a joke. Someone did a cartoon.

Thomas Wenski  

I don’t think they were complimentary. 

Tony Winton  

That was the other publication.

Thomas Wenski 

Well, anyway, it might be true. (laughs) You know, as a beautiful church, as you can see, and I was out there that this Saturday.

Tony Winton  

Are you gonna ride your motorcycle out on Friday?

Thomas Wenski  

No, no, I think I’ll come and be in the car. … I have to be calm, cool and collected, you know.

I’m sure, you know, the dedication ceremony is quite a beautiful, solemn ceremony. And one of the main parts of it is the consecration of the altar. The altar is blessed with holy water and then is anointed with chrism (oil). 

Tony Winton
Tell me about the meaning of that, what spiritually is happening?

Thomas Wenski 

It’s almost a parallel to the rite of baptism. When a person is baptized into the church, water is poured over them. And also they’re anointed with the holy oil. And so and that signifies that that person being baptized is set apart for God, becomes a child of God. 

And the consecration of the church and altar is saying that we’re setting this building apart for God. That it no longer has a secular purpose, but a spiritual purpose. And so it becomes a holy place, a place where people gather to commune with God.

Thomas Wenski

If you ask a kid, you know, what is a church? You know, well — if he’s been catechized by his grandmother — he might say, a church is God’s house. 

That’s why we go to church, you know, to meet in God’s house and be together with his other children. 

I’ll be (there) as archbishop. I’ll be the one who consecrates the church and the altar, and basically turns over the keys to Father (J.C.) Paguaga.

Tony Winton  

Can you preview the homily? 

Thomas Wenski  

I would say, again that, you know, it wasn’t that God needed this church, because God can be given glory in any place. But the parishioners of Key Biscayne needed the church.

And the parishioners of Key Biscayne came together and built a worthy temple for the worship of God. So … this building was set apart for sacred purpose. And it’s because holy things are done there. And holy things are done there so that we ourselves can become holy.

Tony Winton  

You’ve seen all the reporting about church attendance going down and people identifying as you know, the “nones”, I guess they call them, they’re  “none of the above.” 

But Key Biscayne, St. Agnes … did this project because they’re bursting at the seams a bit. So what’s going on in Key Biscayne?

Thomas Wenski

Well, I think not only Key Biscayne, but, you know, the South, the Sunbelt, is not following the trends of the other, rest of the country. … And there is a drop off in attendance, but in the northeast, in the Rust Belt, so to speak. 

There’s been a huge population shift. People are not going to church anymore up there, because they’re not there. They’re not living there anymore. And they’ve moved south. And so you have, you know, places like the Carolinas, Georgia, Arizona, Florida, Texas, in which we’re building churches, and we’re building new schools. And so I always thank God that I’m in Florida and not in Ohio.

The other thing is there is a connection between churchgoing and family life. In other words, if you have intact families, father and children living together, they tend to go to church,

Parents want to, you know, give their children a good direction of life. A lot of times that’s when their kids start growing up, that’s when the parents don’t get religion, but we find they rediscover their religion perhaps.  

in Key Biscayne you have a lot of families, a lot of young families. You see that in the school, which has a good enrollment, and because of that where there’s strong family life, there’s going to be strong participation in the church. 

I see that in Key Biscayne, and a lot of other places in South Florida.  

We also have a lot of people coming from Latin America, and a lot of people from Latin America have a different take on religion than, you know, a more secularized (than) North American does.

So… we’re defying the trends if you will, of the “nones.”

Tony Winton 

What does Key Biscayne, this congregation — it’s an affluent Island compared to other places — what is its role in the larger life of the Church? This parish, what can this consecration be a symbol of, or maybe an inspiration? 

Thomas Wenski  

The Catholics on Key Biscayne are members of not only the parish of St. Agnes, they are members of the Archdiocese of Miami, they’re members of the Roman Catholic Church. 

So… the word Catholic means “universal.”  So, hopefully, the parishioner has a universal outlook. And because of that, for example, many of the ministries that people are engaged in on Key Biscayne take them beyond the boundaries of their parish. 

So you have a group of people on Key Biscayne from the parish, they’re working with the homeless population in Miami-Dade. You have that missionary zeal. It takes them beyond the parish, but hopefully that zeal is, they catch the fire at St. Agnes.

At the same time we’re building this church … the community and the people that have contributed generously have the resources to build this church. 

But at the same time, the Archdiocese is building a new church for the mission of St. Anne’s in Naranja, which has traditionally served the migrant population of South Dade.

In a few months there will be a brand new church and Naranja for the migrant community. A few years ago, we built a Notre Dame to Haiti and Little Haiti and Guadalupe in Doral, so, you know, there’s a lot of good news to spread around.

Tony Winton  We will of course be staffing it. … I can see it coming all together. It does look quite like the beautiful spot

Thomas Wenski  

And the island didn’t the sink under its weight (laughs)  

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Tony Winton is the editor-in-chief of the Key Biscayne Independent and president of Miami Fourth Estate, Inc. He worked previously at The Associated Press for three decades winning multiple Edward R. Murrow awards. He was president of the News Media Guild, a journalism union, for 10 years. Born in Chicago, he is a graduate of Columbia University. His interests are photography and technology, sailing, cooking, and science fiction.

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Tony Winton is the editor-in-chief of the Key Biscayne Independent and president of Miami Fourth Estate, Inc. He worked previously at The Associated Press for three decades winning multiple Edward R. Murrow...